Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. When I first saw a picture of Irena Sendler, she was a little old lady, small and adorable. She looked like she could be someone’s grandma. I had been interested in the Holocaust since I was a teenager and when I learned this woman had joined the Polish resistance during WWII and helped rescued 2500 Jewish children, I had to learn more. How did this sweet, angelic looking person do something so heroic?
Born in 1910, Irena and her parents lived in a small town near Warsaw, where there was a thriving Jewish community. Her father was a physician and though anti-Semitism was rife in that era and many Jews discriminated against, he served all people, including Jews. He believed and taught Irena, “If you see a man drowning, you must jump in to save him even if you cannot swim.” Her father fell ill with typhus and died. To repay him for his kindness, the Jewish community financially supported Irena in school. In the 1930s, in various universities, it was customary for Jewish students to be segregated from the Christian students in the “ghetto bench system.” When Irena attended the University of Warsaw, this practice was going on and she publicly opposed it by intentionally sitting with the Jewish students, stating “I’m Jewish today.” This and various other actions got her expelled, and it was a challenge to complete her education. She eventually became a social worker, eager to help others.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and from the start targeted the Jews. They dropped Jewish individuals and families from the welfare lists, so they could no longer receive aid. To counter this, Irena doctored papers, permitting Jewish people to get help. And thus began her resistance against the Nazis. When they forced the Jews into the ghetto, typhus became rampant. Irena and her associates arranged it to be allowed to go in and bring in much needed food, medicine, and supplies.
The writing was on the wall.
The Nazis were going to exterminate the Jews. For Irena, what she could not sit and do nothing. She and the other social workers concocted a plan to smuggle children out of the ghetto. They would sneak the children out – via a truck, a sewer, hidden in a cart, through the old courthouse which opened onto the Aryan side—and they would place the children with either Christian families or in Christian orphanages. Irena would record their original names and family information alongside their new identity, and put it in two hidden jars. After the war, when Poland was free, she would reunite the children to their families. Soon, Zegota, a country-wide resistance organization, absorbed her band of resisters.
Irena had her share of close shaves, but when she was arrested in October 1943, the situation was dire. The Nazis knew she was involved in Zegota and rescuing Jews, and violently interrogated and tortured her. They crushed and broke her feet and legs. Despite the Nazis’ attempts, she maintained her silence and betrayed no one. Though not religious, in her prison cell she discovered a small Divine Mercy holy card, with the phrase Jesus, I Trust in You. She held onto it and found some hope.
Zegota bribed a Nazi officer, and on what was to be the day of Irena’s execution, smuggled her out. For the rest of the war, she had to be in hiding and could not attend her own mother’s funeral. However, she continued to rescue Jewish children and worked in the resistance. After the war, they realized that most of the children’s parents perished. Even then Irena worked to reunite them to extended family and Jewish communities. They estimate that Irena and her band of social workers saved 2500 children. Irena died when she was 98 years old, determined to the very last not to view herself as a hero. “Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.”
Irena indomitable spirit carried her through the darkest times. Whenever she faced opposition and there seemed to be no answer, she found a way. What was her motivation? Why did she take such risks? The answer is simple: she loved people unconditionally, believed all were deserving of equal treatment, and she wanted to make the world a better place. To me, that is the very definition of a hero.